?Si Se Puede! Chants & Shotgun Blasts
Last year's mayoral campaign continues to reverbrate through our barrios
Election Day in L.A., 1999 and I find myself in Sylmar at a victory party for one of our newly elected City Council members, Alex Padilla, who during his victory speech described himself as a 26-year-old from Pacoima. Joining him on stage was California's first Chicano Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante and Assemblymember Tony Cardenas, another Chicano. As they joined hands and held them up, their faces beaming, especially Alex's, the crowd began their chant, "?Si Se Puede, Si Se Puede, Si Puede!", it can be done.
Published on LatinoLA: March 24, 2002
There I was, a witness to diligence answering to myself "?Si Se Pudo!"
It was done.
Mexican-Americans --Chicanos-- as I prefer to call us, had come into political power and soon our ills would be remedied. It wouldn't take long to know that I was wrong.
On August 29, 1970, my family had planned on going to the Chicano Moratorium, an anti-Vietnam war demonstration that would bring attention to the large number of Chicanos dying in that war. Local community centers were taking buses full of Chicanos and sympathizers from Venice to East L.A. to attend the demonstration.
For weeks, it was the talk of the town. Entire families went. With most of the Chicanos gone that afternoon, Venice lived up to its nickname and really did seem like a ghost town.
Both my parents had to work, so our family wasn't able to go. My best friend Beverly stayed behind to help me baby-sit my brother and sisters. Later that evening my parents went out and again I'm baby-sitting.
Not having spoken to any of my other friends and almost forgetting about the demonstration, I suddenly remember as I'm putting the kids to bed. The kids soon fall asleep and I go into our living room, which also serves as my parent?s bedroom. The room is dark. I sit on the Murphy bed and turn on our black and white television set to watch that late evening's news. The blue gray light fills the room and the anchor begins to report on the riots that broke out in East L.A. that day. I'm shocked. But nothing could have prepared me for the images that would follow.
I saw Chicanos and Chicanas being chased, dragged and beaten by L.A. County Sheriffs. I had never felt anger like this before.
"How could they do this?" I kept asking myself, watching in total disbelief, feeling the anger grow inside of me, changing me forever. At that moment, I swore that I would do whatever I had to so that Chicanos and Chicanas would never ever be chased, dragged or beaten again.
I was eleven.
Venice was a hotbed of political activity in 1970. I went to elementary school with kids who wore "Free Angela Davis" buttons. There were scores of alternative newspapers that published story after story about Constitutional rights violations. These newspapers could be picked up at the several community centers whose ultimate goal was to empower us.
The backdrop, feeding fuel to the fire, was the music of The Impressions and Sly and the Family Stone, just to name two, encouraging us to keep up the good fight. Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On" soundtrack filled the air the following summer, when jobs for us kids came and we were mentored by Chicano college students. Teen posts sprang up. There was the Venice Teen Post on the corner of West Washington Boulevard (now Abbot Kinney Boulevard) and Westminister Avenue where the malt shop used to be. That was where the Black kids hung out and the music blasted.
Chicanos, we had La Causa across the street and a couple of doors down. It was a large two-story house with a big porch that had been converted into a community center. It's walls were covered with Chicano political posters, comfortable couches were spread about in the rooms and there was always someone to talk to.
It was during this summer on a field trip to Disneyland, my first, that I learned Pancho Villa was not the bandito I patterned after the Frito Bandito, the only predominate Mexican on TV in those days. On that bus ride I also learned about Emiliano Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. Not only did I get a job that summer, but also received an education like no other.
Thirty-one years later, I find myself in an entirely different L.A.
In 1976, Venice had its first drive by shooting. Felipe "Beanie" Escalera was killed. Beanie and I grew up just two doors down from each other on Sunset Avenue. I moved into the block just weeks after the East L.A. riots broke out and at about the same time that puberty was kicking in for both us.
He was twelve, a year older than me. He came from a good Catholic family and they, too, were from Texas. Beanie blossomed into one of my generation's finest vatos. His death made headlines. St. Clement's, our parish church, was full and overspilled into the sidewalks with Chicanos, Mexicans, Blacks and White folks. The caravan to the cemetery was record breaking. I was living in Fresno when it happened and his death warranted a long distance phone call in the middle of the week from my mother to tell me the news.
No one in Venice, Brown, Black and/or White, could believe that it had come to this.
Before this, there had always been trouble with the four Westside neighborhoods: Venice, Santa Monica, Sotel and Culver City. As bad as it ever got, though, was stabbings, but no one ever died that I could remember. When I heard the news, I didn't grasp that this would also be my son's future. The last remaining part of innocence for Chicanos was gone and the madness had begun. My son was only a year old when Beanie died.
Since then, thousands of our young have died. Gone are the teen posts, mentors, summer job training programs and informal history lessons. In their stead is a misplaced pride where our young are willing to die for their neighborhood. Go down proudly, earning their respect. Aspirations lie in having a good funeral where they are revered as heroes for taking a bullet and dying.
When you don't think you have a chance making it outside of the neighborhood, this has become the best way out: Going down proudly.
In between this madness are our other children who do not aspire to such deadly goals, but nevertheless are targeted by our police force, merely because they look like the enemy. Our Brown Eyed Children of the Sun are handcuffed, strip-searched in public, taken into custody, shot and killed by those who have taken an oath to serve and protect.
In spite of the Chicano political movement we encountered, our community is still suffering. We have Chicanos in just about every professional field, but we are still seen as The Other. Therefore making us the enemy in our very own country because the color of our skin is wrong -- foreign. We are still the bandito.
In this day and age the bandito has been translated into a gang member. Any Chicano between the ages of eleven to sixty qualifies for the title -- criminal.
I didn't want to believe this. But I was reminded that it is true during Los Angeles' last Mayoral election race.
Antonio Villaraigosa -- Los Angeles' next potential mayor -- in his youth had owned a lowrider, cruised Whittier Boulevard, led demonstrations, got kicked out of Catholic high school, attended ditching parties, dropped out of high school, went back, got a college education, went on to law school, still joining demonstrations, becoming part of the movement that knocked down walls and paved roads.
He has participated in an ongoing undertaking to better the lives of generations of Chicanos, holding on to his vision all the way to the State Capitol as Speaker of the House and then on to his City of Los Angeles Mayoral campaign.
Before Antonio Villaraigosa came along, I can't recall anyone in politics addressing our troubled youth as even being human. When references are made, they are called "at risk youth." And then there's the media's favorites; "alleged" or just plain old "gang member."
A thing. Not a person.
Villaraigosa had the courage to make them human. He reminded us that he had been the product of second chances and that we could not continue to warehouse people, namely, our children. He was willing to reintroduce the very same programs that had helped him turn his life around -- the job training programs, the mentors that came with them, programs that had introduced him to a higher education. He would recreate those hopeful years of the early 70's that changed so many lives, including my own.
Everyone, however, was careful not to make his campaign too Mexican. Unlike his opponent, Jim Hahn, Villaraigosa had to point out during his campaign that he was proud to be an American, something Hahn never did. He never had to. He was never seen as a foreigner.
But Villaraigosa still was, even though his family had lived in this country for three generations. He was still "The Other." A foreigner.
Hahn's smear campaign exemplified Villaraigosa as the new and improved bandito -- a slick, educated, suit wearing, supporter of dope dealers that would misuse his power to reek havoc on the city of Los Angeles. But havoc is and has been already alive and well in our city.
A year ago, on a summer evening, my son and I, who was now 27 years old, sat in our patio, turned off the kitchen light, left the kitchen door open that led to the patio, lit a candle and sat there just talking, enjoying the evening.
We heard some mumbling and a shaved head appeared through the lattice on the other side of the seven-foot-high patio wall. We thought it was our neighbor, a friend, who had climbed up and interrupted our conversation.
We turned our attention to him. Then came those words, "Where you from?"
A gun peered at us through the lattice.
"Where you from homes?", the kid repeated. I couldn't believe that it was happening, but at the same time recognized it as the most absolute truth. Now it was happening to us.
My son stood up and said, "Mom, he's got a gun!" He pushed me towards the kitchen door, standing behind me, pushing me down as I heard the first gun shot. Then my son fell over me on the kitchen floor.
He said, "I've been shot mom. Close the door mom, close the door!"
On my knees, I scrambled in the darkness and closed the door and that's when the shotgun blasts began. I took cover with my son lying on the kitchen floor as they blasted into my dark kitchen, his blood spilling between us.
We laid there, waiting for the blue light that pierced the corner windows of my kitchen to stop. Silence. They were finally gone.
My kitchen was riddled with bullets. My daughter-in-law was at the hospital with my son. My sister-in-law, who lives in the house behind me, came right over. We cleaned without hardly a word spoken between us. Dawn was approaching and we were done wiping blood and sweeping broken glass. I stepped outside into the patio and sat in the chair where my son had been sitting just hours before and cried.
I cried and prayed that my son would be all right. I also prayed that no harm would come to the kid who had asked that question. He was a Chicano, no older than fifteen. Little bald headed boy having to pass a right of passage in our twisted times.
I prayed for the mother that loved him just as much as I loved my son. I wanted no revenge. I forgave him. I wanted that young boy to find forgiveness for what he had done. I wanted him to realize the seriousness of his actions, put it behind him and somehow find a way out of this madness -- to know life is priceless, including his own.
I wanted him to know that his life had value.
My son pulled through and when I went to visit him in the hospital he echoed the same sentiments too.
My son is dark and has Indian features, a handsome young man. By the time he was twelve years old --fifteen years ago-- it wasn't unusual for my son to be handcuffed by the police while his white friends, hands free, stood by trying to convince the police officers that he wasn't a gang member.
Eventually, he began to believe this about himself and was sucked into a vortex of courts, judges, public defenders, prosecutors, juvenile halls, juvenile detention camps, probation, prison, parole. The support system that had existed for me when I was his age was no longer there for him and things have increasingly become worse. Instead of the teen post with its mentors like there was for me, there was Camp Miller, a juvenile detention camp, with its counselors for him.
It's been ten years since my son left and survived his gang affiliations. Nevertheless my son and I were shot at by our next generation of Chicanos. In spite of my fear while lying on my kitchen floor, I understood that we were all in this together. I knew so completely what had led to this madness as I laid there on the floor, watching the light that the gun shots gave off, holding onto my son.
Waiting for it to be over.
It's Election Night 2001 in Los Angeles and I find myself at the Villaraigosa campaign party. It's a reunion of sorts, with new and old blood mixing -- the usual suspects of Chicano politicos, activists, artists, and actors are mixed in with wealthy White liberal contributors walking alongside older Mexican women in their Sunday's best adorned with their gold Virgen of Guadalupe medallions. Groups of bald-headed young Chicanos sporting plaid buttoned up wool shirts walk across the crowd smiling looking carefree.
Lalo Guerrero sports a zoot suit entertains us, salsa music fills the air, the mood is jovial. In between acts, we clap and shout, ??Si Se Puede, Si Se Puede!?
Hope is so thick that you can cut through it.
At least for a few hours.
The numbers came in. Calculations were made and then Villaraigosa came out to give his speech. He may as well have been giving his condolences to all of us. Tears flowed and the look on people's faces resembled those at funerals, where no one knows what to say because words won't ever do. We just hugged each other and cried, having been thrown into this giant wake.
We were mourning.
The tears we cried that evening weren't only because we lost this mayoral race, but because we were once again reminded that in spite of all of the hard work -- our contributions, our degrees, our impressive resumes -- it was still not good enough.
I cried because I knew our children would be sucked into that vortex of condemnation. We had come so very close, Villaraigosa reminded us. But close isn't good enough when human lives are at stake.
I saw the opportunity for real change in my community evaporate.
Villaraigosa was cordial during interviews in the days that followed. I was proud of his grace. However, I was ashamed of the multitudes of Chicanos who have benefitted from his hard work and vision, but never took the time out to vote.
He is only one in an army of Chicano activists who helped shape the benefits that we now reap, gang members not withstanding. Villaraigosa had come up from the ranks and he didn't forget. He didn't forget where he had been and now was the time to address this important part of our community. Part of his platform was to help gang members find jobs that would lead them into productive lives and also help our young find their potential --our very own failed us by refusing to vote.
The casual way that some of us approach our ethnicity is choking. We move away from "gang infested" areas, looking out for our young, and never look back. We move into neighborhoods that have just been vacated by White flight and think that we're doing all right.
The occasional gang member cousin is sneered at and chastised by aunts and uncles and his upbringing is always blamed on the parents. After all, they did alright by their own children, moving them away and all.
They failed to see that we are all in this together, just as I and my son were when we were laying on my kitchen floor.
His blood spilling between us, shotgun blasting.
Lindsey Haley is a writer and poet.